Sometimes the best journeys begin are an interesting road trip. One that can be more exhilarating than your final destination. Nothing rivals a relaxing drive along an unspoiled strip of Southern California highway.
And a weekend drive along winding Santiago Canyon Road, which meanders its way through Santa Ana mountains in southeast Orange County, provides the perfect spot to enjoy a drive in the country.
We start our road trip at the north end, where the city disappears at the mouth of the Santa Margarita Mountains. The landscape here is sharp and rugged and, for the most part, untouched. Some parts of this area of Orange County are preserved as open space, with hiking and horse trails heading into the hills.
Irvine Regional Park
Nestled amid a grove of heritage Oak and Sycamore trees, the rolling foothills surrounding the park are filled with various wildlife, including those at the Orange County Zoo located inside the park. Trees and shaded turf areas also provide a perfect setting for picnicking, barbecuing, and numerous outdoor activities. Santiago Creek bisects the park and is fed by water from Irvine Lake.
Irvine Lake, unfortunately, has been closed for several years. The lake was a privately run facility that offered camping and picnic areas. The 750-acre lake features steep rocky cliffs and shallow coves that provided excellent fishing for nearly seventy years before the gates were locked.
Next up is the turnoff to Silverado Canyon, a must-see on your drive along Santiago Canyon Road. Silverado was a silver mining town in the late 19th century that also produced timber and some coal. If you know where to look, you can find a couple of abandoned mines. For safety, it’s best to stay clear of these relics of the past.
These days Silverado Canyon still has its own post office, fire station, and the quaint little Silverado Cafe. On weekends, there is a small farmers market across the street from the cafe. Silverado Canyon is also the main entrance for those wishing to explore the Santa Ana Mountain trails.
Black Star Canyon
Black Star Canyon is just off Silverado Canyon Road and Santiago Canyon road. You can drive up the canyon 1.2 miles until you reach a gate. From here on, you must hike or ride a bike. One of the main attractions in the canyon is the waterfall. The hike to the falls is 4.1 miles and features several water crossings.
A little further to the south on the east side of Highway 18 are the Modjeska Canyon Nature Preserve and Tucker Wildlife Preserve, protected natural areas surrounded by national forest. The Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary is located at 29322 Modjeska Canyon Rd, Silverado, California. Website.
Madame Helena Modjeska House
Also, tucked away on the banks of Santiago Creek nearby, lies the century-old home of world-renowned actress Madame Helena Modjeska. The National Historic Landmark is aptly named Arden for its resemblance to the Forest of Arden. Docent-led tours of the historic house and gardens are offered four times a month, by reservation only.
Cook’s Corner Roadhouse
Finally, there is one last stop along Highway 18 that is legendary. Best described, but much more than a “biker bar,” Cook’s Corner at the intersection of Santiago Canyon, El Toro, and Live Oak Canyon roads has welcomed travelers on two or four wheels since 1926.
Always packed on weekends with a line of bikes parked out front, the wooden structure similar to a World War II-era restaurant and bar is one of Orange County’s most popular waterholes and eateries.
O’Neill Regional Park
If you turn right at Cooks onto Live Oak Canyon road, it’s a quick trip under a canopy of Oak Trees to O’Neill Regional Park. The drive along Orange County’s last county road is fairly short, but with side trips, you can easily fill up a day.
Orange County’s last back-country road, Santiago Canyon Road, also known as County Highway 18, extends for about 12 miles between the City of Lake Forest and the City of Orange.